Sam Harris, formally Samuel B. "Sam" Harris

Harris, formally Samuel B. "Sam" Harris

American Philosopher, Neuroscientist, Author and Mindful Skeptic, Co-Founder and CEO of Project Reason

Author Quotes

There are 1.2 billion people in India at this moment, most of them are Hindus, most of them therefore are polytheists. In Dr. Craig's (Christian) universe, no matter how good these people are, they are doomed. If you are praying to the monkey god, Hanuman, you are doomed. You'll be tortured in hell for eternity. Now is there the slightest evidence for this? No, it just says so in Mark 9, Matthew 13 and Revelations 14. Perhaps you'll remember from The Lord of the Rings, it says that when the elves die, they go to Valinor, but they can be reborn in Middle Earth. I say that just as a point of comparison.

There are a few dogmas and double standards and really regrettable exports from philosophy that have confounded the thinking of scientists on the subject of morality.

There are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison.

There are sources of irrationality other than religious faith, of course, but none of them are celebrated for their role in shaping public policy. Supreme Court justices are not in the habit of praising our nation or its reliance upon astrology, or for its wealth of UFO sightings, or for exemplifying the various reasoning biases that psychologists have found to be more or less endemic to our species. Only mainstream religious dogmatism receives the unqualified support of government. And yet, religious faith obscures uncertainty where uncertainty manifestly exists, allowing the unknown, the implausible, and the patently false to achieve primacy over facts. Consider the present debate over research on human embryonic stem cells. The problem with this research, from the religious point of view is simple: it entails the destruction of human embryos. The embryos in question will have been cultures in vitro (not removed from a woman?s body) and permitted to grow for three to five days. At this stage of development, an embryo is called a blastocyst and consists of about 150 cells arranged in a microscopic sphere. Interior to the blastocyst is a small group of about 30 embryonic stem cells. These cells have two properties that make them of such abiding interest to scientists: as stem cells, they can remain in an unspecialized state, reproducing themselves through cell division for long periods of time (a population of such cells living in culture is known as a cell line); stem cells are also pluripotent, which means they have the potential to become any specialized cell in the human body ? neurons of the brain and spinal cord, insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, muscle cells of the heart, and so forth. Here is what we know. We know that much can be learned from research on embryonic stem cells. In particular, such research nay give us further insight into the processes of cell division and cell differentiation. This would almost certainly shed new light on those medical conditions, like cancer and birth defects that seem to be merely a matter of processes gone awry. We also know that research on embryonic cells requires the destruction of human embryos at the 150-cell stage. There is not the slightest reason to believe, however, that such embryos have the capacity to sense pain, to suffer, or to experience the loss of life in any way at all. What is indisputable is that there are millions of human beings who do have these capacities, and who currently suffer from traumatic injuries to the brain and spinal cord. Millions more suffer from Parkinson?s and Alzheimer?s diseases. Millions more suffer from stroke and heart disease, from burns, from diabetes, from rheumatoid arthritis, from Purkinje cell degeneration, from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and from vision and hearing loss. We know that embryonic stem cells promise to be a renewable source of tissues and organs that might alleviate such suffering in the not to distant future. Enter faith: we now find ourselves living in a world in which college-educated politicians hurl impediments in the way of such research because they are concerned about the fate of single cells. Their concern is not merely that a collection of 150 cells may suffer its destruction. Rather, they believe that even a human zygote (a fertilized egg) should be accorded all the protections of a fully developed human being. Such a cell, after al, has the potential to become a full developed human being... but given our recent advances in the biology of cloning, as much can be said of almost every cell in the human body. By the measure of a cell?s potential whenever the president scratches his nose he is now engaged in a diabolical culling of souls.

There are ways to really live in the present moment. What's the alternative? It is always now. However much you feel you may need to plan for the future, to anticipate it, to mitigate risks, the reality of your life is now. This may sound trite... but it's the truth... As a matter of conscious experience, the reality of your life is always now. I think this is a liberating truth about the human mind. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand about your mind than that if you want to be happy in this world. The past is a memory. It's a thought arising in the present. The future is merely anticipated, it is another thought arising now. What we truly have is this moment. And this. And we spend most of our lives forgetting this truth. Repudiating it. Fleeing it. Overlooking it. And the horror is that we succeed. We manage to never really connect with the present moment and find fulfillment there because we are continually hoping to become happy in the future, and the future never arrives.

There is a circle here that links us to one another: we each want to be happy; the social feeling of love is one of our greatest sources of happiness; and love entails that we be concerned for the happiness of others. We discover that we can be selfish together.

There is a sense in which all cognition can be said to be motivated. One is motivated to understand the world, to be in touch with reality, to remove doubt, etc. Alternately one might say that motivation is an aspect of cognition itself. Nevertheless, motives like wanting to find the truth, not wanting to be mistaken, etc., tend to align with epistemic goals in a way that many other commitments do not. As we have begun to see, all reasoning may be inextricable from emotion. But if a person's primary motivation in holding a belief is to hue to a positive state of mind, to mitigate feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, or guilt for instance. This is precisely what we mean by phrases like wishful thinking, and self-deception. Such a person will of necessity be less responsive to valid chains of evidence and argument that run counter to the beliefs he is seeking to maintain. To point out non-epistemic motives in an others view of the world, therefore, is always a criticism, as it serves to cast doubt on a person?s connection to the world as it is.

The truth, however, is that the conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science.

There is another possibility, of course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: the biblical God is a fiction. As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor. Only the atheist has realized that the biblical god is no different. Consequently, only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world?s suffering at face value. It is terrible that we all die and lose everything we love; it is doubly terrible that so many human beings suffer needlessly while alive. That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion -- to religious hatreds, religious wars, religious delusions, and religious diversions of scarce resources -- is what makes atheism a moral and intellectual necessity. It is a necessity, however, that places the atheist at the margins of society. The atheist, by merely being in touch with reality, appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors.

The U.S. Supreme Court has called free will a universal and persistent foundation for our system of law, distinct from a deterministic view of human conduct that is inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system (United States v. Grayson, 1978).

There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life.

The usefulness of religion - the fact that it gives life meaning, that it makes people feel good - is not an argument for the truth of any religious doctrine. It's not an argument that it's reasonable to believe that Jesus really was born of a virgin or that the Bible is the perfect word of the creator of the universe.

There is no doubt that out collusion with Muslim tyrants ? in Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere ? has been despicable. We have done nothing to discourage the mistreatment and outright slaughter of tens of thousands of Muslims by their own regimes ? regimes that, in many cases, we helped bring to power. Our failure to support the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq in 1991, which we encouraged, surely ranks among the most unethical and consequential foreign policy blunders of recent decades. But our culpability on this front must be bracketed by the understanding that were democracy to suddenly come to these countries, it would be little more than a gangplank to theocracy. There does not seem to anything within the principles of Islam by which to resist the slide into sharia (Islamic law), while there is everything to encourage it. This is a terrible truth that we have to face: the only thing that currently stands between us and the roiling oceans of Muslim unreason is a wall of tyranny and human rights abuses that we have helped to erect. This situation must be remedied, but we cannot merely force Muslim dictators from power and open the polls. It would be like opening the polls to the Christians of the fourteenth century.

The Vatican is an organization that excommunicates women for attempting to become priests13 but does not excommunicate male priests for raping children.14 It excommunicates doctors who perform abortions to save a mother?s life?even if the mother is a nine-year-old girl raped by her stepfather and pregnant with twins15?but it did not excommunicate a single member of the Third Reich for committing genocide.

There is no doubt that the United States has much to atone for, both domestically and abroad...To produce this horrible confection at home, start with our genocidal treatment of the Native Americans, add a couple hundred years of slavery, along with our denial of entry to Jewish refugees fleeing the death camps of the Third Reich, stir in our collusion with a long list of modern despots and our subsequent disregard for their appalling human rights records, add our bombing of Cambodia and the Pentagon Papers to taste, and then top with our recent refusals to sign the Kyoto protocol for greenhouse emissions, to support any ban on land mines, and to submit ourselves to the rulings of the International Criminal Court. The result should smell of death, hypocrisy, and fresh brimstone.

The self really is an illusion?and realizing this is the basis of spiritual life.

The treatment of women in Muslim communities throughout the world is unconscionable. All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the Earth.

The truth is that religion, as we speak of it ? Islam, Christianity, Judaism ? is based on the claim that God dictates certain books. He doesn?t code software, he doesn?t produce films, he doesn?t score symphonies, he is an author. And this claim has achieved credibility because these books are deemed so profound they could not have possibly been written by human authors. Please consider for a moment how differently we treat scientific claims and texts and discoveries. Isaac Newton went into isolation for 18 months starting in the year 1665. When he came out of his solitude he had invented the calculus; he had discovered the laws of motion and universal gravitation; he had single-handedly created the field of optics. No one thinks this was anything but a man?s labor. And it took 200 hundred years of continuous ingenuity on the part of some of the smartest people who ever lived to substantially improve upon Newton?s work. How difficult would it be to improve the Bible? Anyone in this room could improve this supposedly inerrant text scientifically, historically, ethically, spiritually ? in moments. If God loves us and wanted to guide us with a book of morality, it?s very strange to have given us a book that supports slavery, that demands that we murder people for imaginary crimes like witchcraft. The true basis for hope in our world is open-ended conversation; And religion has shattered our world into competing moral communities. What we have to convince ourselves of is ? that love and curiosity is enough for us ? and intellectual honesty is the guardian of that.

The truth that we must finally confront is that Islam contains specific notions of martyrdom and jihad that fully explain the character of Muslim violence.

The problem is that most people, most of the time, are desperate to believe ridiculous and divisive ideas for patently emotional reasons, and while rarely explicit what they're really worried about is death

The problem is that religion tends to give people bad reasons to be good.

The problem of vindicating an omnipotent and omniscient God in the face of evil is insurmountable. Those who claim to have surmounted it, by recourse to notions of free will and other incoherencies, have merely heaped bad philosophy onto bad ethics.

The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.

The problem with faith, is that it really is a conversation stopper. Faith is a declaration of immunity to the powers of conversation. It is a reason, why you do not have to give reasons, for what you believe.

The problem with prohibition of any desirable commodity is money. The United Nations values the drug trade at $400 billion a year. This exceeds the annual budget for the U.S. Department of Defense. If this figure is correct, the trade in illegal drugs constitutes 8 percent of all international commerce (while the sale of textiles makes up 7.5 percent and motor vehicles just 5.3 percent). (35 ? And yet, prohibition itself is what makes the manufacture and sale of drugs so extraordinarily profitable. Those who earn there living in this way enjoy a 5,000 to 20,000 percent return on their investment, tax-free. Every relevant indicator of the drug trades ? rates of drug use and interdiction, estimates of production, the purity of drugs on the street, etc. ? shows that the government can do nothing to stop it as long as such profit exists (indeed, these profits are highly corrupting of law enforcement in any case). The crimes of the addict, to finance the stratospheric cost of his lifestyle, and the crimes of the dealer, to protect both his territory and his goods, are likewise the result of prohibition. (36 footnote below) A final irony, which seems good enough to be the work of Satan himself, is that the market we have created by our drug laws has become a steady source of revenue for terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Shining Path, and others. [supporting link ? not from Sam Harris: drug policy and terrorism]

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Harris, formally Samuel B. "Sam" Harris
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American Philosopher, Neuroscientist, Author and Mindful Skeptic, Co-Founder and CEO of Project Reason